Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lac Assal, Djibouti

photo by Todd Katschke

When in Djibouti, be sure to visit Lac Assal. It is the lowest point in Africa, third lowest depression on earth, the world's largest salt reserve, and the world's 2nd most saline body of water.

Translation: The water is crystal clear and you float--- like really float-- as in sit a child on your stomach and you still float high without effort, and you'd better bring extra water for rinsing off because it is so salty that your entire body becomes covered in salt crystal as soon as you start to dry.

The other thing to do at Lac Assal is collect salt pearls and salt crystals.  They make great natural art for home.  These Djibouti salt pearls are so unusual that they were featured on Salt News (I know, the fact that there is a news blog dedicated to gourmet salt is amazing to me too).   According to Salt News, you can  

"serve Djibouti Boule in a gimlet, using gin from the freezer and adding the salt ball at the last minute.  You then drink in a race against the dissolving salt.  Or wrap a Djibouti Boule with ground lamb, egg, breadcrumbs, and herbs and do meat-encrusted salt balls, meating your salt instead of salting your meat is not just witty, it’s delicious, and plays with the cooking time and texture of the food in interesting ways.  Or just enjoy the tactile pleasure they offer.  I keep a bowl of the on desk and roll them around between my fingers when I’m trying to figure something resistant to figuring, like what to do with Djibouti Boule. Roll some Djibouti Cutie around a plate with more angular geometries of sashimi, or melon, or what have you.  Perch some atop a beet and goat cheese salad for visual drama and textural intimidation (the crystals are actually somewhat soft, but seem hard as marbles). Scatter grilled or broiled seafood with Djibouti Pearl. Let some intermingle with the juices of a steak, a lobster salad, or what the heck, an oyster. Djibouti Dew is effectively a sprinkling salt.  It has an elusive, but ultimately hard and in your face intensity that makes it suitable for spicy foods found anywhere from Thailand to Madagascar to Peru to Mexico."

See that white stuff? It's not foam; it's salt crystals

collecting salt beads

Taylor collecting salt beads; photo by Stuart Denyer

Salt pearls; photo by Todd Katschke

A BBC news corespondent also did an article on Lac Assal, but it is a bit of a downer,  and I promised you posts about the enjoyable parts of life in Djibouti, so I'll just mention it in passing. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

SIFAT build update

"So, Taylor, what happened with that construction project in Lusaka that you spent so much time telling us about?  You never got around to doing a follow-up blog on it."

I'm so glad you asked.  Those of you who know me well or have read my blog posts from when I was working in Zambia know that through no planning of my own (i.e. the hot potato dropped firmly into my lap not long after arriving to town) I ended up playing a major role in helping the United Methodist Church's Lusaka district obtain a title deed on a large plot of land north of town and acted as the communications link between SIFAT and district leadership. I expressed to you my mixed emotions about the initiative--about how the missiologist in me would suggest to anyone considering such a thing to run away quickly, and yet how I sensed that I was being called to shepherd this project precisely because I was keenly aware of the difficulties it would face.

After the countless trips to bureaucratic government offices I had truly hoped that, if anything, the district leadership would succeed in obtaining a title deed and that I would still be around the hold that dang piece of paper in my hands.  My wish was finally granted one month before I left Zambia.  Rev. John Ilunga beamed with pride when he returned from the Ministry of Land, and I squealed with joy.


I got to be around to see the caretaker's house built (which John, Mary and their children live in), the exterior enclosure completed, and the much of the main building's structural elements go up.  Was even given the honor of preaching at the first official worship service in the building.

There's a little Evelyn in that big belly!

The construction stage is still ongoing and volunteers are welcome.  So if you'd like to spend a vacation going on safari, seeing Victoria Falls and meeting some great people--and helping them build a conference/training center while you are there, contact my friends at SIFAT

Whale Sharks and Lac Abbe, Djibouti

Our colleague Fausto DeGuzman got a GoPro camera and created these two great videos while here in Djibouti.

Whale Sharks  (yes, I got to swim with whale sharks too on a later date---amazing experience)

Road trip to the chimneys at Lac Abbe--I went on this trip
(organized by my friends Armina and Rony at Phoenix Travel Services )

Joy of Djibouti

Floating in Lake Assal, the lowest point in Africa and the world's largest salt reserve
This weekend I hit the 6 month mark of my time living in Djibouti.  Six straight months without leaving the country, and a wonderful six months it has been.  I’m serious—not one ounce of sarcasm.  I really am enjoying living in Djibouti and look forward to the next 18 months here.

This may come as a bit of a surprise to some of you.  Djibouti has a bad reputation.  When telling people I was moving here, the responses I received were usually “My condolences” or “Where?!” I myself didn’t know diddly-squat about the country until it appeared on our bid list. Researching it online didn’t provide many clues as to what to expect, and books on the subject are hard to find.  Not even Lonely Planet can tell you much—just a few pages inserted into their book on Ethiopia.  After over a year of studying the topic, what I had learned could be summed up in the following points:

1)    Djibouti is freakishly hot much of the year
2)    Djibouti’s main sources of income are the rent paid by the Americans and French for their military camps/bases here. The port is also a major player in the economy.
3)    There are thousands of non-Djiboutian military troops stationed in the main city
4)    The vast majority of Djibouti men are daily users of a drug called Khat (read High in Hell for more about this)
5)    Men who have made their wealth from piracy own fancy homes here.
6)    Most Djiboutians are extremely poor
7)    Most of Djibouti is unfit for agricultural efforts
8)    There didn’t seem to be much to see/do in Djibouti  (which turned out to be completely incorrect)
9)    Djibouti used to be part of Ethiopia, but the French rented it to use as a shipping port and never gave it back.  Now it is an independent state.
10) BUT there is the snorkeling and the whale shark migration to look forward to!

After arriving and getting my official orientation, I learned a few more things--- like that HIV and tuberculosis levels are very high, and that one of the most extreme forms of female genital mutilation continues to be inflicted on the majority of Djiboutian girls.

So now that I’ve told you all of that, I’d like to say (especially to those considering coming here) that life in Djibouti is actually quite nice if you are one of the lucky ones to have a living wage.  Djibouti is full of stunning beauty both above and below the waterline. Djibouti has good restaurants and beaches, and in the winter the weather is fantastic.  There is a decent French elementary and high school and a French-run hospital with competent staff. Unlike most capital cities in the world, Djibouti has extremely low rates of random violent crime.  Muggings and car-jackings aren’t an issue here. Neither is air pollution or getting stuck for ages in snarled traffic.

Thus, I plan to dedicate a number of my upcoming posts to the joys of Djibouti.  

Friday, February 22, 2013


If you come to Djibouti, you will most likely see camels.  It is kind of hard to miss them  (I mean this literally; you have to be careful driving at night--I've had to slam on the brakes for random camels in the road a number of times now).  They show up in the most amusing places, so I thought I'd share some of my favorite camel pictures I've taken in Djibouti thus far.  

Camel at Lake Assal

Admittedly not camels, but a family of these wild birds hangs out my house

Camels in trucks on the highway
Random camel in front of my house--freaking out my dog

Camels hogging the road making me late for my french class

Camels parked at one of my favorite restaurants in town

Monday, February 18, 2013


Lydia making my life easier
Earlier this month Lydia, my 'mother's helper,' said she had a bad toothache and needed to seek medical attention.  She didn't trust local dentists so had decided to travel back to Ethiopia--didn't know when she'd be back.  That was the last time I heard from her.   My back-up helper is currently helping the Marines get their place ready for official inspection, so she’s been too busy to moonlight for me these days either. This means that daytime housework and childcare are once again 100% my responsibility--making goals like ‘blog regularly’ fall to the wayside.  

I thought how petty complaining about this online would sound (“My househelp is sick so I have to do everything myself and don’t have time for blogging or my French studies” #richworldproblems), but then it occurred to me that my female colleagues in Congo would totally be able to relate. There is it common knowledge that no woman on her own could possibly juggle housework, childcare and income-generating work let alone be involved in things like church ministries. It takes at least two—ideally more—women in a household to get things done, and even then there is rarely time left for educational or creative pursuits.  When women get married in Congo they quickly summon another woman (usually close family relation) to come help.  This is partly why when I visit homes in North Katanga I often scratch my head trying to figure out who actually lives there and how everyone is related.

This is why polygamy—or household structures that resemble polygamy in everything but the sex—is still common in many parts of the world. Americans who think it is all about sex simply miss the point. A woman needs other women in the household to survive.

Now I’m sure a voice in your head is noting how many well-functioning households you know that have only one (or no) woman in it.  Such examples, I tell you, are made possible by outsourcing and technology. Who grew, harvested, plucked and prepared the food and drinks you consumed today? It’s highly unlikely there weren’t women (and children—especially if you consumed chocolate or coffee) involved in much of that work. Who made the clothes you are wearing?  Probably a sweatshop full of women. You might also have the benefit of washing machines, dishwashers, licensed daycare centers, potable running water, refrigerators and reliable electricity, and homes that are so well sealed that they don't have to be swept and scrubbed daily due to all the dirt that blows in.

I could go on and on the topic, but my daughter has recently discovered the joys of opening cabinets and tossing out all of their contents and has managed to make a huge mess while I was writing all of this. She might currently be holding a fragile/dangerous object. Have I mentioned how I'm now eating humble pie for all those times I silently judged Congolese women when I saw their toddlers 'alone' in a corner left to entertain themselves?